Lesson #2: Be Specific, But Not Too Specific

TL;DR: Tailor your request to save work for the records officer — and save costs — but being too specific could backfire.

Following up on FOIA Lesson #1, in which I described the first lesson I learned since beginning my FOIA journey — seek out a central repository for the information you are seeking, rather than trying to feel out the “branches” of the tree — this lesson discusses an important factor you should take into account when crafting your request: specificity is good, to a point.

In virtually every instance, it’s a good thing to be as specific as you possibly can in what you are looking for. Perhaps you read an Inspector General’s report which mentions a specific document or record in possession of this agency. Or maybe you found a specific form on a police department’s website, and would like all completed copies of that form the department has which were filled out in a particular year. In the former case, your request should link to the Inspector General’s report and specify a page number; in the later, you should similarly provide a link or an attachment of the form you are referring to.

This saves a records officer from potentially contracting a headache while trying to read your mind. It can also save you costs in the long run — as a requester, you may be on the hook for time spent tracking down the records you’re looking for. It’s also helpful to show the records custodian that you are hoping to work with them and do not wish to be an adversary. It’s a win-win.

In the worst case, an agency can claim that your request is vague to such an extent that they cannot complete your request because they can’t figure out what you want. While this is legitimate on some occasions, agencies often abuse their ability to respond with this in order to avoid furnishing documents they’d rather not give you.

But it’s important to strike a balance. Just as you don’t want someone combing through loose papers in search of something responsive to your request, you also don’t want them sifting through documents that are of potential interest to you in order to find the very specific one you asked for.

Working from the example above with the form found on a police department’s website, imagine that you are looking for, say, a form completed on June 6, 2016, requesting the installation of a GPS device. The Boston Police Department has a specific form precisely for this, in fact. You could request “a request for installation of a GPS device completed on June 6, 2016,” but that might be a mistake. What if there were 6,000 of those completed in 2016? Forget the troubling questions that would surely come to mind about possibly living in a surveillance state. How much would it cost you for them to go through them — even if they’re ordered by date — to find the one you’re looking for? It could be enough that you decide not to follow through with the request. What if you’re not actually positive about the date the form was completed? Or whether or not the officer who completed the form got the date right?

What if, paradoxically, it’s cheaper and more reliable to get all 6,000 forms completed that year? That’s a real possibility. Put yourself in the shoes of a reasonable records custodian handling such a request. You’d likely take a look at the form and determine whether there are any fields that could contain information that should be redacted. Brushing aside the fact that a form requesting the installation of a tracking device is likely to be redacted, if there’s nothing to redact, then the period of time that a records custodian can bill you for work identifying and redacting records is over. The only thing left for them to do is to copy or scan the records and send them to you. Instead of paying potentially hundreds of dollars seeking a single page that may not actually exist, you could actually fork over only a few bucks and be guaranteed to get the document you’re looking for along with a potential goldmine of others.

So, be friendly with the people on the other end of the email chain; they’re human, too. Demonstrate that you’re willing to work with them to reduce their workload while still getting the documents you need: be specific, but remember that more records doesn’t always mean a higher price tag.

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